SLIDELL, La. -- Firefighters traded their trucks for air tanks Wednesday as they trained for water rescues.
The Rapid Dive Response team with St. Tammany Parish Fire District #1 has an average of three to five water rescues a year.
Wednesday, the 44 members of the team tested their skills at working through murky waters quickly by connecting one of several keys with just one of several locks hooked to a chain in the canal at Eden Isles. The goal was to get it done in five minutes maximum.
The team and its growth has been a priority for four years after the department got tired of not being able to do more on water calls.
"We had three incidents where vehicles had been in the water, our units responded but we didn't have the capability of breathing air under water," Fire Chief David Kuhn said.
Kuhn said that can't be an option in their coverage area of Slidell.
"We have bodies of water such as Eden Isles, Oak Harbor, where there's a lot of recreational traffic,” he said, “But then we have those ponds and other areas in Slidell. We have flood waters that periodically come through."
That happened this past winter, when a number of drivers ended up in dangerous waters that flowed out of local rivers and close to roads.
The training is to get the firefighters ready for any kind of visibility, for any kind of temperature and for any challenges they could find at any underwater scenes. That includes working with only 15 minutes of air and no protective suits.
Firefighters say the practice pays off.
"We normally don't get to go in the dark water like this, it's normally in a pool when we train, so it’s nice to be able to get in something that we would be dealing with every day," Brian Bilich said.
"We want to be able to get on scene, get our people in the water and be able to do a successful rescue as opposed to a body recovery," said Kuhn.
Training for the Rapid Diver Response Team is held twice a year. The group has grown from 10 in 2009 to 44 today. That's out of 150 firefighters in St. Tammany Fire District #1.